Hangover? Swap the Caesar for an amino acid

For a lot of Canadians packing up to go camping or cottaging for that last long weekend of summer, a bottle of Bloody Caesar mix is a must-have.

It’s a time-honoured Labour Day ritual. And, to some, it’s also vital — in case they wind up with a hangover — to have the hair-of-the-dog handy. New research from Finland, however, suggests we’d be better off leaving the clam juice at home and, instead, packing an amino acid called L-Cysteine.

Of course, the best way to avoid a hangover is to not drink to excess. That’s pretty much foolproof. The second best way, according to the study from the University of Helsinki, might be taking a hefty dose of L-Cysteine before going to bed. Then, while we’re sleeping, the amino acid works its magic by binding to the acetaldehyde, the metabolite responsible for causing a lot of the pain and discomfort associated with the morning after.

The study saw 19 people give up six successive Friday nights to sit in a hotel and drink excessive (but carefully controlled) amounts of alcohol mixed with lingonberry juice until they went to bed. Some were given placebos, while others were given doses of L-Cysteine mixed with some B vitamins. The group that got the vitamin-amino acid cocktail fared better the next day — although, this is only a correlational study.

Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, author of the book Hungover: The Morning After and One Man's Quest for the Cure, tried over 85 different hangover pill products and eventually developed his own concoction of supplements, vitamins and minerals that he says helps alleviate his hangovers.

Since I’ve been taking N-Acetyl-L-Cysteine (NAC), a similar compound, to prevent hangovers for nearly two years, I was happy to see that the efficacy of this amino acid might not be all in my head. I started adding it to my hangover prevention regimen (B12 and an anti-inflammatory before bed on the extremely rare occasions I had reason to worry I’d had one too many) after interviewing Toronto writer Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall about his book “Hungover: The Morning After and One Man’s Quest for a Cure.”

As the title suggests, Bishop-Stall spent nearly a decade researching and experimenting on himself. Although he recently told me he was still tweaking the formula, he had a half-dozen things he took after drinking (but before bed) and emphasized the importance of NAC which, he pointed out, wasn’t exactly a new idea. Nor was he surprised at the results of the study.

“The thing is, I know it works because I did my own testing for a long time,” says Bishop-Stall. “It’s also included in almost every single mass-market hangover product that’s been made for the last 30 years. One of the ones that was out a few years ago even says right on the bottle that it uses the power of cysteine.”

Over the years, Bishop-Stall estimates he got as many as 100 friends and acquaintances to try NAC, which is more than any scientific trial that we’re aware of. These aren’t double-blind control trials, of course, so they don’t really count. Sadly, there aren’t many that do count, since hangover research is relatively new and rather difficult to conduct. Assessing the severity of a hangover involves a certain amount of subjectivity.

Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall, author of the book Hungover: The Morning After and One Man's Quest for the Cure, tried over 85 different hangover pill products and eventually developed his own concoction of supplements, vitamins and minerals that he says helps alleviate his hangovers "100 percent of the time".

Plus, you have to find people who are willing to drink too much. This issue came up with the Finnish study, which was already a small sample, but shrank down to 19 as people dropped out after deciding they couldn’t drink the amount of alcohol required to induce a hangover.

Still, if NAC works, you might think that a million marketplace reviews might have confirmed its efficacy, given that it’s on the market in multiple forms. Unfortunately, people don’t necessarily take it correctly; the dose and the timing are key. The study found a dose of 1,200 mg was associated with reduced nausea, headache, stress and anxiety.

And then there’s the matter of when you take the NAC. If you already have symptoms of a hangover, it’s probably already too late.

“With the commercial products, people weren’t necessarily educated on the dose,” says Bishop-Stall. “And you have to take it before going to sleep (not the morning after). For it to really work, it has to be taken before the body starts that whole system of withdrawal.”

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Some may wonder if we should really be spending our precious research resources on curing an ailment that is decidedly self-inflicted. Others might submit that hangovers are nature’s way of keeping us from drinking too much. I’ve certainly pondered these topics.

The Finnish study, however, provides rebuttals to both of these critiques by framing L-Cysteine as a harm reduction tool. First of all, acetaldehyde is carcinogenic, so binding it to the L-Cysteine may reduce long-term alcohol-related cancer incidence.

Possibly more importantly, it might keep people away from morning-after drinks, an ill-advised but popular hangover cure. Not only is it bad for the liver to indulge in more alcohol the following day, it’s the sort of behaviour that might lead to alcoholism.

It’s possible that the hair-of-the-dog’s days are numbered. Don’t worry though, cottagers. You can still enjoy a Bloody Caesar this weekend. Just maybe try not to use it as a hangover cure.

Christine Sismondo

TORONTO STAR

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